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Analysing the Authority of Orthodoxy

With terms such as ‘salaf’ and ‘salafism’ having become highly politicised and sensationalised in the public domain, Ustadh Ali Hammuda separates fact from fiction in this series demystifying the status and authority of the constitutive and interpretive “Understanding of the Companions” of the Messenger of God (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam).

The Authority of the Understanding of the Companions

Part 2

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

In this short series, we attempt to elucidate what is meant by Islamic ‘orthodox’ understanding, a concept popularly criticised in the contemporary age in preference of ‘modernism’ and ‘progressive’ ideology that fits with today’s prevalent dogmas. It then outlines the authority of the oldest understanding of Islām, espoused by the companions and the first few generations in particular. In the previous article we provided an introduction and definitions of terminology such as Salaf among other key concepts to our discussion.

‘Fahm al-Salaf’ – The Understanding of the Salaf

To proceed, what is meant by the term ‘Fahm al-Salaf‘ or ‘the understanding of the Salaf‘? How can we classify a particular opinion on an Islamic matter as being the opinion of the Salaf? Furthermore, what is the nature of this ‘orthodox understanding’ which the scholars of the past (like Imām Ahmad b. Hanbal rahimahullāh) promoted even in the face of persecution?

It is in reference to those matters which the companions unanimously agreed upon (a consensus) or their Jumhūr (majority) agreed upon or when an individual opinion from the Salaf spreads and no dissenting voice exists to the contrary. Therefore this ‘understanding of the Salaf‘ which our scholars promote does not refer to individual Ijtihādi opinions of the companions in respect to certain Fiqhi (matters of jurisprudence) rulings or individual Ijtihādi opinions relating to Tafsīr, for example. These can be classified as opinions of some of the Salaf and not the opinion of the Salaf.

Ibn Taymiyya said, when he was asked what one should believe about the Qur’ān:

الَّذِي يَجِبُ عَلَى الْإِنْسَانِ اعْتِقَادُهُ فِي ذَلِكَ وَغَيْرِهِ مَا دَلَّ عَلَيْهِ كِتَابُ اللَّهِ وَسُنَّةُ رَسُولِهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَاتَّفَقَ عَلَيْهِ سَلَفُ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

“What one must believe as per the Qur’ān and everything else is in accordance to that which was mentioned in the Qur’ān and the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and what the Salaf agreed upon.”[1]

In fact, he also says,

وَأَمَّا أَقْوَالُ الصَّحَابَةِ؛ فَإِنْ انْتَشَرَتْ وَلَمْ تُنْكَرْ فِي زَمَانِهِمْ فَهِيَ حُجَّةٌ عِنْدَ جَمَاهِيرِ الْعُلَمَاءِ

“As for the individual opinions of the companions, if it becomes famous and is not refuted during their time, then according to the majority of the scholars, such an opinion is a Hujja (authoritative proof).”

Now that we have an idea as to what is meant by ‘the understanding of the Salaf’ we pose the million dollar question:

“Why is there all this emphasis on the Salaf’s understanding? Surely the Qur’ān that they recited is the same as ours, the Sunnah which they applied is the same as ours and we surely do have competent scholars in our midst, so why this insistence on their understanding specifically in the 21st Century?”

Let us first agree that ‘Ikhltilāf‘ or differences of opinions is a ‘Sunnah Kawniyyah’, a universal law that has taken place and will continue to take place until the end of time. Sometimes this difference of opinion is acceptable and other times, it may drive a person to the fire. One of the chief reasons why people differ and thus go astray is due to the different understandings of a text. Imam Ibn al-Qayyim said,

وَهل أوقع الْقَدَرِيَّة والمرجئة والخوارج والمعتزلة والجهمية والرافضة وَسَائِر طوائف أهل الْبدع إِلَّا سوء الْفَهم عَن الله وَرَسُوله

“What was it that caused the Qadariiya[2], the Murji’ah[3], the Khawārij[4], the Mu’tazilah[5], the Jahmiyyah[6], the Rawāfid[7] and the rest of the deviant sects to deviate other than the misunderstanding of what was intended by Allāh and His messenger?”[8]

So the issue is not always related to whether you have textual evidence, a ‘Dalīl‘ or not, but many a times, the issue culminates in the misunderstanding of that Dalīl.

Why such Authority?

But the question still stands: Why should we lend this level of authority to the Salaf? There are several features that were exclusive to them, including the following.

1 – The way in which they received the Dīn

Al-Hāfidh al-Lālakā’ī depicts this for us by saying,

فَأَخَذُوا الْإِسْلَامَ عَنْهُ مُبَاشَرَةً، وَشَرَايِعَهُ مُشَاهَدَةً، وَأَحْكَامَهُ مُعَايَنَةً، مِنْ غَيْرِ وَاسِطَةٍ وَلَا سَفِيرٍ بَيْنَهُمْ وَبَيْنَهُ وَاصِلَةٍ

“They took from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) Islām directly and took its rulings visually without a middle man between them and the Prophet and without an ambassador.”[9]

They then internalised these teachings with the same purity in which they were revealed without any creedal deviances touching them in the least, for the majority of these deviant ideas only appeared afterwards. And even when the slightest opportunity for deviance would arise, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would personally set things straight. Thus when he saw in the hands of ‘Umar scrolls from the Torah, he said to him,

وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَقَدْ جِئْتُكُمْ بِهَا بَيْضَاءَ نَقِيَّةً

“Have I not come with that which is white and pure?”[10]

In fact, the companions themselves, like Ibn ‘Abbās would say,

كَيْفَ تُسْأَلُونَ عَنْ شَيْءٍ وَعِنْدَكُمْ كِتَابُ اللَّهِ أَحْدَثُ الْأَخْبَارِ بِاللَّهِ

“How can you ask them about things when the book of Allāh, which is the latest divine communication, is with you?!”[11]

So, they witnessed the revelation as it was revealed on a first hand basis and received it in the purest of ways, at a time when the Greek books of Hellenistic philosophy were yet to be translated, the books which later complicated what were originally simple matters causing nothing but confusion, doubt and hesitancy.

2 – Their Enthusiasm for Knowledge

Their zeal to learn was unparalleled. Ibn Mas’ūd says,

وَاللَّهِ الَّذِي لاَ إِلَهَ غَيْرُهُ، مَا أُنْزِلَتْ سُورَةٌ مِنْ كِتَابِ اللَّهِ إِلَّا أَنَا أَعْلَمُ أَيْنَ أُنْزِلَتْ، وَلاَ أُنْزِلَتْ آيَةٌ مِنْ كِتَابِ اللَّهِ إِلَّا أَنَا أَعْلَمُ فِيمَ أُنْزِلَتْ، وَلَوْ أَعْلَمُ أَحَدًا أَعْلَمَ مِنِّي بِكِتَابِ اللَّهِ، تُبَلِّغُهُ الإِبِلُ لَرَكِبْتُ إِلَيْهِ

“I swear by Allāh, there is no Surah from Qur’ān except that I know where it was revealed, nor is there a verse from Qur’ān except that I know why it was revealed, and if I come to learn of a person who has more knowledge than me with respect to the Qur’ān, I will travel to him if I am able to do so.”[12]

This relentless insistence to learn was not limited to the companions but the Tābi’īn enjoyed it as well. Mujāhid says,

عرضتُ المصحفَ على ابن عباس ثلاث عَرْضات، من فاتحته إلى خاتمته، أوقِفه عند كل آية منه وأسألُه عنها

“I recited the Qur’ān upon Ibn ‘Abbās three times, from al-Fātiha until the end, and I would stop him at each verse and ask him about it.”[13]

3 – They were the most eager of all people to apply what they had learned

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said,

مَا مِنْ نَبِيٍّ بَعَثَهُ اللهُ فِي أُمَّةٍ قَبْلِي إِلَّا كَانَ لَهُ مِنْ أُمَّتِهِ حَوَارِيُّونَ، وَأَصْحَابٌ يَأْخُذُونَ بِسُنَّتِهِ وَيَقْتَدُونَ بِأَمْرِهِ، ثُمَّ إِنَّهَا تَخْلُفُ مِنْ بَعْدِهِمْ خُلُوفٌ يَقُولُونَ مَا لَا يَفْعَلُونَ، وَيَفْعَلُونَ مَا لَا يُؤْمَرُونَ

“There was no Prophet whom Allāh had sent in the past except that he had companions and disciples who applied the Sunnah of their Prophet and obeyed his commands. Then after them would come a people who would say what they do not apply and apply what they were not commanded to apply.”[14]

Abī ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Sulami, who was from the most prominent Tābi’īn, exemplifies this meaning in his statement:

حدثنا الذين كانوا يُقرِئوننا: أنهم كانوا يستقرِئون من النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم، فكانوا إذا تعلَّموا عَشْر آيات لم يخلِّفوها حتى يعملوا بما فيها من العمل، فتعلَّمنا القرآن والعمل جميعًا

“Those who used to teach us the Qur’ān (the companions) would tell us: When we used to learn the Qur’ān from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), we would learn just ten verses at a time, not going beyond them until we had applied them completely in our lives. And thus we learnt the Qur’ān and its application at the same time.”[15]

Above are just three reasons why such a huge amount of authority is to be levelled to the understanding of the ‘Salaf’, or why the orthodox understanding of Islām is most ‘correct’. In our forthcoming articles, we will develop this idea, outlining  other supports to this claim before going into some of the outcomes of this understanding.

Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] Majmoo’ al Fatawa

[2] Their main belief was their denying of free-will, believing that actions are independent of Allāh’s divine decree

[3] Their main belief was that no person who attests to Islām will enter hellfire, regardless of one’s actions

[4] Their main belief was that the person who commits a major sin exits the fold of Islām and will abide in the hellfire permanently

[5] Preferred allegorical interpretations of much of Islām’s texts including free-will

[6] Alongside the Jabriyyah, this group were exponents of extreme determinism, believing that one is ‘forced’ by Allāh’s divine decree

[7] The extreme Shī’ite doctrine in its various forms

[8] Al-Ruh

[9] Sharh Usūl I’tiqād ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamā’ah

[10] Musnad Ahmad on the authority of Jābir

[11] Mustadrak al-Hākim

[12] Bukhāri on the authority of Ibn Mas’ūd

[13] Ibn Jarīr al-Tabari

[14] Sahih Muslim on the authority of Ibn Mas’ūd

[15] Musannaf Ibnu Abi Shayba

About Shaykh Ali Hammuda

Shaykh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is a UK national of Palestinian origin. He gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari'ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Ustādh Ali is the author of several books including 'The Daily Revivals' and 'The Ten Lanterns", and continues to deliver sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.


  1. Assalamualaykum
    I think this is an oversimplification of something much more complex.

    If fahm-ul-salaf is only that which the companions unanimously agreed upon – what is that which they were non-unanimous upon? Is ghayr fahm ul salaf? Even from a language perspective that just doesn’t sound right.

    But much more importantly….if this definition of fahm ul salaf is accepted, where do we find it documented clearly that x,y, & z are all the issues over which the companions unanimously agreed. You will enter into a debate about what is and isn’t ijma ul sahaba and you find you’ve gone nowhere.

    The author nonetheless brings some important quotes and arguments. I’ve enjoyed reading the 2 articles thus far

  2. JazakAllahKhair for a most beneficial article.

  3. This is quite interesting article providing a rare opportunity to analyse the intellectual basis of orthodoxy in Islam. However since the mode of analysis is objective reasoning it begs to be pointed out that the reasons mentioned do not fulfil the objectives sought.

    Here the author has defined the term fahm assalaf as unanimous understanding of the salaf, whereby no one disagreed i.e. ijmaa e saqooti (agreement due to no objection). But as Imam Malik pointed out there can be many reasons for any objection to be reported… And Imam Ahmad even said regarding such claims of indirect ijmaa: “He who maintains the occurrence of Ijma` is a liar.”

    The authority in deen can not be given to someone simply by them learning it in some unusual manner, by being overly enthusiastic or by being super eager to apply the learned knowledge. These are human endeavours and there is no logical reason to suggest that such reasons qualify anyone to become an authority in deen. These qualities have not ceased to exist in modern times or some times after the times of salaf… Many super knowledgeable scholars came over the centuries.

    The prime authority only belongs to Allah because of Him being the Creator and Owner of everything. He is the only one who has the implicit right to assert authority. After Him we can claim the authority in the matters of deen for Rasulullah SAW because Allah SWT has delegated such authority very clearly in Quran. To claim authority for any other would require a clear and undeniable proof of delegation from the original holder of the authority. Making long derivations of out of context quotes of different people does not cut such argument. The people for whom we are trying make a case of authority did not even make such a claim individually or altogether. They were great people but they were humans and history is a proof of their human nature overtaking their greatness on many occasions.

    If these are the main arguments to support authority of orthodoxy, then I would say the orthodoxy seems to be standing on shaky grounds.

    • I think you’re mixing up different issues.

      One is that of ijma’ – which has been unanimously understood to be—rationally and scripturally—a source of Islam. Don’t be confused by some quotes from some imams regarding when deviant sects claimed ijma like you have mentioned (like Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal regarding the Mu’tazilites’ claim to ijma’). Quote mining is dangerous without context! If you look to the jurisprudence of these individuals, for example, they are filled with mentions of ijma’ as a proof for many issues. One major point of the salaf vis-a-vis ijma’ is that it was much easier to verify ijma’ when the ummah was smaller then and when we have over a thousand years of research.

      The point of the companions in particular is often overlooked – it is a sound logical conclusion if one believes its premises:
      1. Allāh is capable of carrying out His will;
      2. Allāh sent a revelation, a ‘clear communication’, and sent a Messenger along with it to explain it;
      3. The purpose of a communication to be understood;
      4. Therefore it is impossible that those to whom this revelation was sent, ALL misunderstood it.

      • Thanks for your reply. Jazakallaho khair.

        My above comments specifically highlighted the weakness of arguments as provided in the article above.

        Regarding Ijmaa I agree with your theoretical position regarding ijmaa e sahabah. However making a generalisation is still not logically sound. The ijmaa of sahabah regarding what Allah revealed is one thing. But it is completely different to claim implicit or absolute authority of sahabah on ALL matters. Let us suppose they all agreed on a particular kind of government. If you classify their ijmaa on this matter as a “source of deen” then it implies that form of government is determined and fixed in Islam. However such a (hypothetical) consensus might not necessarily have arisen due to any divine guidance but could be because of the factors of times circumstances. Therefore with changing times and circumstances their unanimous understanding should be amenable to revision.

        Authority is big word to claim without putting forward any evidence of divine sanctions. The article above did not justify the conclusions it is making.

  4. No offence to anybody that is following the way of the Salaf or calls themselves a Salaf, It just how I’ve been made to feel. Its even made me question my deen. They say don’t follow this person, don’t take from this person, this that. Never in my 10yrs of being a Muslim have I had to question anything until most recent months.

    I wish I was a Salaf but I’m not I’m merely just a Muslims trying to practice my religion to the best way I not how to.

    Please forgive me if I have offended anyone, please note that’s not my intention. Allah knows Best..

  5. I love reading this and cant wait for the next instalment. I too find people say the Salaf so much so I question do they no what it means to say that? How can we say the word Salaf and really not have a deeper understanding behind it. I come into contact with people who say openly I’m a Salaf, I’m like okay. Confused.com with no relation to our conversation, even though our conversation maybe about Islam, Its always comes to I’m a Salaf or there a difference of opinion. Okay.

    I feel like ive been force feed the way of the Salaf (Their way) and if your not like me the Bye, Girl bye. your not in my gang. Your worth nothing, your opinion doesn’t not matter our not of the Salaf

    from my understanding I know that the way of the Salaf is the companions around the massanger how they spoke to one another how they interacted with each, most importantly manners, which dear I say no one seems to have. Even in the way that they slept an ate.

    Now fast forward to day, we can never be like them even if we try our most best, I wish we could be like them and everyone would respect each other and learnt to agree to disagree and take it with wisdom and not think the whole worlds attacking you. I speak from being in contact with people who call themselves or say that are of the salaf. I just sometimes cant understand there is no difference between me and you we are all muslims following the same religion Quran and sunnah. Yes we all have a different level of understand and take on things. Its up to us to learn and understand our deen but it seems like we settle which trying to understand. The things Ive heard have amazed me and I think is this right??

    I ask myself?

  6. Where is part 1? A link would be useful.

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